I sit at my bed, alone and empty, feeling the tears flowing down my cheeks and watching them carelessly tumble to the ground. The image keeps replaying in my mind of my last connection to the past, my last hope of happiness, walking away in the physical form of Jarrah.
He didn’t even look back.
I had hoped to feel empowered and lighter, but already I feel doubt creeping into my mind. From this point on, I am alone.
It is absolutely terrifying. Everyone that has protected me and kept me strong throughout all my misfortune--everyone I have loved for the past two years is gone. I feel like a shell washed up against the shore; its resident already moved on as I sit there empty, waiting for someone to return who never will.
I have realized, from everyone and everything that has been taken away from me, that life is [A/N: a box of chocolate] like a complex, delicate, patchwork. When we meet someone and come to love them, their fabric becomes intricately woven to our own and we become more beautiful and stronger than before. And then one day, the simplest of scissors come along and take them away from us. We try to stitch over what we lost and move on, but the scars can never go away.
I’m back to that same square patchwork that I was four years ago. I’ve lost my family all over again. Only this time? It’s my fault.
A soft knock echoes from the door, and I look up in excitement.
“Sorry, it’s just me,” says Lewis as my face falls.
I quickly wipe my tears away onto my sleeve, and invite her to sit down. She sits there in a comfortable silence, waiting for me to begin.
“She was right, Lew. Marianna was right. He really left; after everything we went through and all we promised each other. I really thought--or rather, hoped-- he would come back. I have nothing to remember him by except the gaping hole in my chest.”
“Did you know it all along?” she asks carefully.
“That he would leave, in the end?”
“I think so,” I say slowly, “but like Jim said. I had a life before Jarrah, and I can have one aft--after him,” I choke.
“That’s a load of bullshit and you know it. This isn’t some end of the world, rebirth crap for you, Alice! Nothing’s changed, except you’ve lost someone who wouldn’t be loyal to you when it came to it! Hell, we should celebrate. No one to complain about our amazing oatmeal any more!“she smiles awkwardly.
“I know you didn’t like him, Lew, but I kind of did,” I say sadly, failing to smile at her humour.
“Aww, Cheer up Lissy!”
She shrugs. “If I’m gonna be your only friend now, I might as well give you a cute nickname.”
“Thanks, Lewis,” I say, rolling my eyes.
“Listen, I think you made a great choice. Not gonna lie, you get a point in my books. I mean, what’s the point of having him around if he won’t stay with you till the end? It wouldn’t have ended well anyway, right?”
“Too soon,” I mutter.
“For Chrissakes! You’re Alice! You’re a world-class escapee buttkicker! Most people don’t get out of one plantation--but you escape two, AND get out of jail, AND survive a stabbing and you’re letting a break-up get you down? This Jarrah guy must really mean a lot to you if this is what it takes to break you!” she exclaims, exasperated.
“Yeah, he does.”
“Then why did you let him go?”
“It’s just like you said; because he was willing to let me go.”
“Fair enough. Alright, now get up.”
“Where are we going?”
My eyes light up in excitement.
“I have a mission from Jim; and I think you could use some fun.”
“Good morning, Alice!” says Jim, glancing up from the kitchen table, where several papers are sprawled and covered with writing. He quickly pushes them aside, putting them into a pile and flipping them over.
“Glad to see you up and ready so soon. How are you feeling?”
I offer him a small smile. “I can walk fairly well, but I still feel the wound if I step a certain way.”
He looks at me confusedly. “I actually meant--”
Lewis nudges him sharply, shaking her head.
“So,” he says, changing the subject quite appropriately, “does this mean you’ve taken us up on our offer?”
“Maybe if you could explain a little more exactly what it is I’ll be doing?”
“Small things at first, naturally. We need to test your skills! You’ve already proven to be quite the escape artist, and clearly on fortune’s side, but there are other things that will take some practice.”
“I’m ready to learn,” I say confidently.
Anything to distract me from Jarrah.
“Firstly, there’s thievery. We steal food and equipment from the rich, pampered bastards of Preston, mainly Lewis’ role here.”
“Which I gladly accept,” she says proudly.
I look at them warily, but he elaborates.
“It takes a lot to feed and clothe all the slaves that come through here, you see. My income alone isn’t enough to sustain all that, so we have our ways of getting by. Have you ever actually, er, stolen anything?”
“Nope. One guy died from my plantation for stealing bread, so it wasn’t exactly at the top of my list of things to do.”
“I, uh, see. Well, Lewis here can teach you a few tricks. Secondly, and this one is extremely important, is concealing yourself well. You need to blend in, which can be difficult with your, er--”
“My black skin,” I interrupt, “yeah, I knew that one.”
“Right,” he says awkwardly, “there are few black folks in Preston that aren’t slaves. Too many slave catchers go through here, and even kidnap the free ones.”
He looks at Lewis awkwardly, as if waiting for confirmation.
“Like my brother. You can say it Jim. They just snatched him off the streets cause ’e was eight and couldn’t fight back, and we never saw him again.”
“They did that to me too. My whole family, really.”
“Then you know how dangerous it is,” says Jim, “You must be alert at all times. You’re a wanted jail and plantation escapee, and people will be looking for someone like you. It is crucial that you talk to no one and hide your face. Speak differently. Look different. Most importantly; act different. As you know, I’ve been a police officer. But I’ve also been a slave catcher, a rich merchant, and a racist bastard who had to spit at a slave to conceal his identity when a cop became suspicious.”
My eyes widen in surprise.
“Not everyone is easily fooled. Assume that someone is always distrustful of your identity, and you will be much more believable.”
I wring my hands nervously as the daunting task ahead of me becomes clearer and more serious than I’d imagined.
“Thirdly, I want you to remember your humanity and the reason you’re doing this. We have to do bad things at times so we can do more good things.”
An unsettling feeling settles in my stomach, that maybe what I signed up for isn’t exactly what I imagined.
“What kind of bad things?”
He sighs. “You’ll understand, in time. Let it motivate you, but never control you. Some people get lost in the job and become reckless. We had a lad, Alex, who we lost because he was too confident and jumped right into a scuffle with a slave and his master. His foolishness was his end.”
Lewis winces, turning away.
“He wasn’t foolish. He was brave.”
Jim stares at me seriously, ignoring her comment. “He reminds me of you, which is why I must emphasize this. We are helping others stay alive, but you need to keep yourself alive too. I must beg you to keep your personal feelings out of your job.”
“Okay,” I say slowly, “so what is it exactly that you want me to do?”
“The kitchen supplies are running low,” he says, an uncharacteristically sly smile playing his lips.
Newly robed in a traditional long, brown dress gown, I stare at my reflection in the mirror, unable to believe that the face I behold is even mine. Lewis stands proudly to the side, a pair of scissors in her hand. In an attempt to throw off my identity to any suspicious Prestoners, she has shaved off my entire head and covered it in a dull, gray bandana. My long, coarse locks lie carelessly on the floor. My face is fuller from the regular meals I have been receiving for the first time in my life, my usually hard jawline softer and less pronounced. Though I physically look healthier, it is my eyes that tell a story of their own.
They are sad and empty. The gleam in them is gone, so I look lifeless and emotionless. They are nothing more than the winter that sets upon a forest, once teaming with life but now dark and cold. I offer Lewis a thankful, small smile that does not extend to my eyes.
I guess in the end it doesn’t matter what you look like on the outside--that always changes. It’s the inside you’re stuck with; and no artificial moustache could cover it up. In that respect, I am completely unrecognizable. No whip could ever break me, but my own heart could.
“Amazing, ain’t it?” drawls Lewis, in her newly developed Southern accent, “it’s like you’re a whole other person!”
“Yeah,” I say sadly, “I guess I am.”
“Ye’ll have to work on a better voice if yer going to act the part, eh? We’ll have to rename you too, in case you slip up. Y’ell be takin it with ya to yer Earth Bath at this rate, so I reckon you’d better choose wisely.”
“You mean...my grave?”
She nods. “So? What’ll it be?”
“Adeline,” I say instantly.
She looks at me curiously. “How come?”
“After my mum. I miss hearing it.”
“It’s beautiful. Alright, Adeline. Welcome to Preston.”